Posted by: universallearningcentreblog | August 13, 2011

The Charcoal Cartel, the Dominican Republic, and Deforestation in Haiti

My blog post from yesterday got me to thinking about deforestation, so the better part of my afternoon has been spent reading and researching, all the while with this image of the foliage in Pilate, Haiti, in mind:

Among the questions I’d like to find answers to are:

1) Why is Haiti so badly depleted of its trees when the Dominican Republic, which shares the very same island, is not?

2) What potential solutions are there to the deforestation?

3) Why should we care about deforestation?

Of course, the easiest question to answer is why we should care, so let me get that out of the way.  Simply put, and from an entirely self-serving perspective, Americans and others outside of Haiti should care because a lack of trees causes horrible landslides which take lives and cause the need for increased international support.  And times being what they are, none of us really have any extra money to put towards helping people outside our own borders, or at least not without a great deal of turmoil as the Congress (and the nation) debate national spending.  Also, trees aide in the prevention of everything from airborne illnesses caused by dust to the prevention of wild fires, droughts and floods.  If you’re a subscriber to this blog, I highly doubt that I need to persuade you to care, so let’s leave it at that!

Just for background, let me throw some numbers at you before we get into the issue (most of this info was found on The Christian Science Monitor’s website at

  • In the 500 years since Hispaniola was “discovered,” the half that is Haiti has gone from being entirely covered in lush forests to being stripped of 98% of its trees
  • Each year, Haitians use the equivalent of 30 million trees which is 20 million more than what new growth there is each year
  • All together there is only a total of 100,000 acres of forest left in Haiti

(Above, a view in Pilate)

More interesting to me than why we should care is why Haiti is so badly deforested and the D.R. is not.  In researching, I quickly found out something I hadn’t realized:  that in the D.R. it is illegal to cut the trees, and there is a program in place that subsidizes propane as a replacement for the charcoal needed for cooking.  So right away, we see that the D.R. is less at risk for deforestation because when people have a replacement for the charcoal they make from the trees, they are willing to use it.

Something that readers might not realize is that Haitians do indeed understand that they are causing the deforestation, and if presented alternatives that were economically viable for them, they would jump at the chance to give their poor landscape a break.  The deforestation problem in Haiti is well understood by Haitians, despite the misperception of some outsiders who have criticized Haitians for the condition of their land.  But just because they know they’re causing the problem doesn’t mean they have an alternative.  Cutting down the trees is not something they do for leisure activities or for some sort of recreational purpose.  Cutting the trees, as I’ve said in other blog entries, is something they do to sustain life.  They use the trees mainly to either burn for immediate use or to make charcoal for cooking, or, less problematic, for building materials.  The question is not whether Haitians want to strip their land, but whether they want to eat to survive.  When faced with such a “life or death” choice, obviously, we would all choose to feed our families and face the consequences of deforested land.  My point is that if Haitians were introduced to alternatives to the charcoal they use for cooking, and the alternatives were going to be easily accessible and not more costly to them, they would welcome the alternatives.  A propane subsidy would be an interesting proposition for Haiti (although given the state of the government, it is not likely to be manageable, but that’s another blog…).

While reading today, I was struck by the fact that despite the illegal nature of cutting wood for charcoal in the D.R., people are in fact still doing it.  For example, a couple years ago, there was a small group of people who lost their lives on the border of Haiti because of an argument that turned violent between members of the “Charcoal Cartel” selling charcoal along the border between Haiti and the D.R. (from The Christian Science Monitor article referenced above).  So,  just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean Dominicans aren’t still doing it.  There has developed a “black market” of charcoal because of its being illegal.  In addition to the Charcoal Cartel, the D.R. periodically faces threats to end the subsidy, for political reasons, issues related to the economy, pressure from the IMF.  But, all in all, the propane program has significantly reduced deforestation in the D.R., and it has been so successful that the government actually extended it to public transportation in addition to low income residents who need propane for survival.

(A current satellite image of the island of Hispaniola, shared by the D.R. and Haiti, can be found at

It would be easy for an outsider to say, “Then institute a propane subsidy in Haiti and end deforestation.”  Wouldn’t it that it were so simple!  Of course anyone who watches the news knows that Haiti is in no condition for the government to be instituting any such type of program, and wasn’t well-equipped to deal with the problem prior to the earthquake either.  For one thing, corruption is rampant and hinders the prospects of such a program.  But more importantly, where would the government get the funds to pay for such a program?  Haiti does not have tourism like the D.R. does, which is a great source of revenue for them.  Nor can Haiti tax its citizens when they make less than a dollar a day, on average, and can’t afford to feed their families let alone pay tax to a corrupt government.  So a propane subsidy is hardly realistic at this point.

(Photo borrowed from

Other possible solutions on the horizon include the Jatropha Tree which is a rapid-growth fruit tree that produces a fruit whose seed can be pressed for oil to use as biofuel.  Apparently the programs encouraging the use of this tree have been less than successful in countries like China, India and in some areas of Africa, suffering from what appear to me to be manufacturing issues related to expressing the oil, not problems in growing or maintaining the trees.  Also a consideration would be recycling paper into burnable briquettes, or Cocogreen briquettes which somehow use waste material from coconuts (as mentioned in the EcoLivingPhilippines blog at

(Photo borrowed from Partners in Health)

I have no idea how to make programs like these stick, especially in a country like Haiti which has so many truly enormous problems.  What I suspect though is that programs that attempt to address deforestation will have to be designed in phases with emphasis on education, and will have to include powerful efforts to reforest while simultaneously phasing out deforestation, and of course such programs will have to include alternatives to burning wood for charcoal, and more than one at that.  Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization working in Haiti and other countries, has established a program (involving human waste!!) that seems to be addressing the problem on many  levels.  (more information about PIH’s program can be found at  I think that PIH’s success is wonderful, but I wonder how sustainable it is on a bigger scale.  It’s hard to say if a program that is seeing such success in a small community would translate nicely to the larger community.  I would certainly hope so, but as usual, obstacles will include the government itself, corruption, the size of the population, international support, and buy-in of the people themselves.  As with most projects in Haiti, it seems, things will move at a snail’s pace, and we will fail many times before we succeed.  But as Michael Jordan said:  “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  May Haiti be like Jordan!

A funny coincidence happened while I was researching and writing this blog today.  I checked the “stats” to see how many readers we had today, how many new subscribers, etc.  One of the pieces of information I get is what terms people searched for.  Today for some reason, we had 6 “hits” from people using the term “deforestation” in search engines.  We “hit” because of mentioning deforestation in a prior blog.  If you’re one of the people who found us because of that search, I’d love to hear from you.  Why were you searching deforestation and did you find what you had hoped to find?  I hope the information in this piece provides what you were looking for!  If nothing else, I hope you learned a little bit by reading.  I know I did!


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